A Media Perspective on Storm-Related Power Outages

image country road tree-linedPeople love their roadside and yard trees, but they also care about a reliable power supply. As a human dimensions researcher on the Stormwise project, I am interested in how people make decisions about their trees in the face of these competing values. One of the first steps in gaining this understanding is to evaluate perceptions of both storm-related, and specifically tree-related, power outages.

Recent storms in the Northeast, like Tropical Storm Irene, the October 2011 snowstorm, and Hurricane Sandy, have brought a lot of attention to the problem of storm-related power outages. We consider events like this to be environmental focusing events, because they cause the media and the public to focus in on the problem and potentially change the conversation about both the problem and possible solutions.

The media plays two important roles during and after environmental focusing events: (1) portraying risks and solutions associated with the events, and (2) acting as gatekeepers for different voices to be heard in the news. In the first role, media portrayal of risks and solutions to those risks can impact public perceptions and spending priorities during recovery. In the second role, the media determines which stories are told and who tells those stories. In many situations, people in positions of power like government and industry officials have easy access to the media through press conferences and press releases, so they tend to receive a lot of media coverage. On the other hand, members of the general public have less access to journalists so they often receive less coverage.

We studied news articles from the New York Times and other local and regional newspapers in the Northeast to evaluate how storm-related power outages are covered in the news. We were interested in which voices got covered by the media and what solutions were presented for the problem of storm-related outages.

Analysis of this data is ongoing, but preliminary results show some interesting patterns. Among the New York Times articles, government and utility officials received the most coverage, as we expected. However, members of the general public were also featured in over half of the articles. In the aftermath of the storms, many people stayed at shelters or waited in gas lines, which may have made it easier for journalists to get access to their stories.

Regarding blame for power outages, we found that the general public and government officials tended to blame utility companies for not being prepared for the storms, not communicating well about when power would be restored, and trying to save money by neglecting to have crews on standby. In turn, the utility companies often placed the blame on the storms themselves for being so large and unpredictable that they could not have been prepared.

Many solutions were offered in the media for storm-related power outages, but surprisingly, tree trimming around the power lines was one of the least mentioned solutions. Government and utility officials tended to focus on grid-wide solutions like moving crucial equipment out of flood zones and creating smart grids. Some government officials suggested burying the power lines, but utility companies and research consultants typically shot this down as too expensive to be a viable solution.  Residents and business owners and employees tended to focus on solutions that they themselves could undertake like purchasing a generator or moving electrical equipment out of the basement, where it may be vulnerable to flooding.

We plan to use these results as a starting point for investigating the wide range of perspectives among people in the Northeast regarding both trees and power outages. Stay tuned for further studies!